CLEVELAND (AP), — CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart pharmacies distributed large quantities of pain pills to two Ohio counties, a federal jury ruled Tuesday. This verdict could be a wake-up call for U.S. cities and county governments who want to hold the pharmacies responsible for the opioid crisis.
Trumbull and Lake counties blamed three chain pharmacies for failing to stop the overdose deaths. Each county was liable for about $1 billion in damages. According to their attorney, the court made a comparison between the pharmacies’ dispensing of pills and a gumball machine.
Federal judges will determine how much pharmacy companies must pay in damages in the spring.
This is the first time that pharmacy companies have been allowed to testify in court against themselves in a drug crisis that has claimed the lives of half a million Americans over the past 20 years.
The jury heard from the counties that pharmacies had played an important role in creating a nuisance for their communities by the way they distributed pain medication.
“The law requires that pharmacies be careful when dealing with drugs. “This case should serve as a warning that failure is not acceptable,” Mark Lanier, an attorney representing the counties, said.
Lanier declared, “The jury sounded the bell that should have been heard through all pharmacies throughout America.”
The pharmacy chains’ attorneys claimed that they had policies in place to stop the flow of pills when pharmacists were concerned and would inform authorities about suspicious orders by doctors. They claimed that doctors were responsible for prescribing the right amount of pills to legitimate medical conditions.
CVSHealth, Walgreen Co., and Walmart Inc. stated that they will appeal to customers.
Walmart claimed in a statement that the county attorneys sued the counties “in search for deep pockets while ignoring real causes of the epidemic — such as pill-mill doctors, illegal drugs and regulators asleep at switch — and they incorrectly claimed pharmacists must second guess doctors in a manner the law never intended. Many federal and state health regulators claim this interferes in the doctor-patient relation.”
Fraser Engerman, spokesperson for Walgreen, described the case as unsustainable efforts to “resolve the opioid crisis through an unprecedented expansion in public nuisance law.”
Engerman stated that the company had “never manufactured, marketed or distributed opioids” and did not distribute them to the “pill mills” or internet pharmacies that fuel this crisis.
Mike DeAngelis, spokesperson for CVS, stated that “many factors have contributed to opioid abuse issue. Solving this problem will require participation from all stakeholders in the health care system as well as all members of our communities.”
Two chains, Rite Aid and Giant Eagle, had already settled lawsuits against the two Ohio counties.
Lanier stated during trial that the pharmacies tried to blame everyone except themselves.
Lanier explained to jurors that the opioid crisis has overwhelmed Ohio’s courts, social service agencies, and law enforcement in Ohio’s blue-collar area east of Cleveland. It left behind devastated families and children born to addicted mothers.
Trumbull County alone saw approximately 80 million prescriptions for painkillers between 2012-2016 — that’s 400 per resident. Some 61 million pills were distributed in Lake County during this period.
As medical groups started to recognize that patients have the right of pain treatment, doctors began prescribing more pain medication like oxycodone or hydrocodone. Kaspar Stoffelmayr, an attorney representing Walgreens, stated at the trial’s opening.
He said that the problem was caused by “pharmaceutical companies tricking doctors into writing too many pills.”
According to the counties, pharmacies should be the last line for defense against the pills falling into the wrong hands.
Lanier stated that they didn’t have enough pharmacists or technicians to prevent this from happening, and that they failed to implement systems to flag suspicious orders.
The jury’s verdict Tuesday was hailed by the committee of local government lawyers who sued the drug industry in federal courts.
The committee stated that pharmacy chains had watched for decades as pills poured out of their doors causing harm, but failed to take the required legal action. These companies instead opened up new locations, flooded communities with pills and enabled the illegal flow of opioids to an illegal secondary market.
Before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, the trial in Cleveland was one of a larger constellation of approximately 3,000 federal opioid lawsuits that were consolidated under the watchful eye of the judge. Others cases are proceeding in state courts.
Shatterproof’s chief public policy officer, Kevin Roy, stated that the verdict could encourage pharmacies to follow in the footsteps of drugmakers and major distributors that have settled millions of opioid cases nationwide. No pharmacy has yet reached a nationwide settlement.
Roy stated, “It’s an indication that the public feels, at least in selected places, that there has been exposure and must be remedied.”
Drug distributors, drugmakers, and pharmacies are subject to claims by the government.
Roy pointed out that the courts haven’t always been consistent in determining whether these laws apply to such cases. Roy stated that there have been many different decisions recently which should cause us to be cautious about the true meaning of these laws in the grand scheme.
Two recent rulings have ruled in favor of the theory. More cases are headed towards rulings.
Trials are ongoing against New York drugmakers and Washington state distribution companies. Although the trial against West Virginia distribution companies was concluded, the judge has yet to rule.
In a case involving three counties in California and the city Oakland, a judge in California ruled in favor top drug manufacturer in November. Judge said that it wasn’t clear that pharmaceutical companies had used deceptive marketing to increase opioid prescriptions and create an environmental nuisance.
This month, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court overturned a 2019 judgement for $465 Million in a lawsuit brought by the state against Johnson & Johnson.
Others lawsuits have led to large settlements or suggested settlements that were not finalized before trial.
The decision of the jury in Cleveland did not have any effect on Walgreens, CVS and Walmart stock, which closed higher on Wall Street Tuesday.
Geoff Mulvihill (Associated Press, Cherry Hill, New Jersey) contributed to this report.